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After tough 2016, Bryce Harper looks dominant in spring training

After tough 2016, Bryce Harper looks dominant in spring training

WEST PALM BEACH , Fla. — Nationals manager Dusty Baker discerns a difference in Bryce Harper at the plate this spring compared with the guy who struggled mightily for much of last season.

It's not his current home run binge -- that's simply a byproduct of Harper's success, and a pleasant one at that.

"He's not missing pitches," Baker said. "The last couple days, he's not missing pitches and he's not fouling balls off. When you're not doing well, a lot of times you're fouling balls off that you should putting play, whether it's a line-drive home run or a popup or something."

Harper had homered in three straight games for Washington before going 0 for 1 against Detroit on Monday. Five of his eight spring hits have been homers and he's added a double for good measure.

Harper also drew a four-pitch walk from Tigers ace Justin Verlander in a 3-3, 10-inning tie. The four-time All-Star outfielder is hitting .313 in exhibition play and began the day tied with San Diego's Jabari Blash for the spring training lead in home runs.

"He looks good. He looks real good," Baker said.

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Harper only hit two homers last spring after winning the 2015 NL MVP award. Once he left Florida, though, Harper turned it on, swatting nine homers by the end of April while hitting .286.

"Without Bryce last year, there's no way we'd have gotten off to the start that we had last year," Baker said.

That surge didn't last. Harper never hit more than four homers in any given month the remainder of the way and only mashed five after the All-Star break. His .226 average in the second half dropped Harper's season average to .243, easily the lowest of his five-year major league career. He finished with 24 homers and 86 RBIs for the NL East champions.

The previous season, Harper hit .330 with 42 home runs and 99 RBIs.

Harper's futility fueled speculation that he was playing through an injury, but he maintained publicly that there was nothing physically wrong with him.

"To me, he was (swinging) underneath and missing a lot of balls, fouling them off," Baker said.

Teammates are hoping that Harper's spring foreshadows a resurgence at the plate.

"As far as health-wise, the way his body looks -- and I think that's the most important thing -- he looks great," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

A strong spring often indicates the return of much-needed confidence for a player coming off a down year.

That might not be the case for Harper.

"Confidence ain't his problem," Baker said. "Confidence might be some other guys' problems, but I think he was probably born confident."

MORE NATS: Washington signs John Lannan to minor league deal

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Nationals baffled by Dickey's knuckleball in Braves' 3-2 win

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Nationals baffled by Dickey's knuckleball in Braves' 3-2 win

ATLANTA  -- R.A. Dickey frustrated Washington with his knuckleball for eight innings, Ozzie Albies had three hits and the Atlanta Braves beat the Nationals 3-2 on Thursday night.

After Ryan Zimmerman's leadoff homer in the second inning, the 42-year-old Dickey gave up only one hit -- a two-out single by Trea Turner in the third -- over the next five innings. Turner was picked off first base.

Dickey (10-10) gave up two runs, four hits and no walks. He made a strong case that the Braves should pick up his $8 million club option for 2018.

Zimmerman lined his homer into the left-field seats, tying the game at 1. He set a career high with his 34th homer, his fourth off Dickey this season.

Arodys Vizcaino struck out the side in a perfect ninth for his 12th save in 15 chances. It was a strong return to form after Vizcaino walked all three batters he faced in a blown save Wednesday night.

The Braves scored two runs in the fourth off Tanner Roark (13-10). Albies singled, moved to third on catcher Matt Wieters' wild pickoff attempt and scored the go-ahead run on Freddie Freeman's fly ball to deep left field. Nick Markakis doubled past Zimmerman at first base and scored on Johan Camargo's single up the middle.

The Nationals trimmed the Braves' lead to one in the eighth. Anthony Rendon doubled to left field and scored on Wieters' two-out single.

Ender Inciarte continued his push for 200 hits when he led off the first with a triple to right field. It was his 191st hit, the third-highest total in the majors. Inciarte scored on Albies' single.

The game was delayed several minutes in the middle of the eighth. There was confusion as Nationals manager Dusty Baker attempted to make several defensive changes and had to go over the changes with home plate umpire Nic Lentz, who also took questions from Braves manager Brian Snitker.

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Ryan Zimmerman sets career high in homers vs. Braves

Ryan Zimmerman sets career high in homers vs. Braves

Ryan Zimmerman's resurgent season continues to get more and more impressive. 

Zimmerman hit his 34th home run of the season on Thursday night, setting a new career high. 

His previous career high was set in 2009, when he hit 33 while slashing .292/.364/.525 with a .888 OPS. 

He didn't get cheated on it, either: 

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